The term ‘net neutrality’ was coined by Columbia University professor TimWu back in 2003. It works on the premise that all data on the internet should be treated equally and that there should be no differential pricing for content, site or application.
Internet connectivity is provided through telephone lines, coaxial, fiber optic cables and wireless dishes installed on rooftops. In India, Airtel, Tata DoCoMo, BSNL and Reliance are the big boys. Text, voice and video are transmitted on the internet through packets. These data packets travel through a maze of inter-connected networks before reaching the intended destination.
When you apply for an internet connection, you agree to pay the ISP a monthly or yearly tariff depending on the bandwidth and data download. Besides bandwidth and data download, there is no restriction whatsoever on the use of applications, be it YouTube, Netflix, WhatsApp or Skype. These are called OTT or over-the-top applications.
So what’s the issue?
The genesis of the net neutrality debate can be traced back to 2007 when Comcast Corporation, a Philadelphia-based internet service provider, came in the line of fire. Many subscribers complained that Comcast was restricting bandwidth and interfering with peer-to-peer networking applications. The intrusion was challenged by advocacy groups through a complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US equivalent of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Comcast was ticked off for denying users access to lawful internet content and net neutrality got a shot in the arm.
Are Indian ISPs against net neutrality too?
In India, net neutrality became an issue in December 2014 when Airtel announced additional charges for Over the Top (OTT) applications like Skype, Viber and WhatsApp. The move outraged tech-savvy users across the nation.
Bharti Airtel triggered the net neutrality debate by announcing the launch of its Airtel Zero scheme, which would allow customers to access certain mobile applications ‘free of charge’ while the company would recover the cost it incurred from companies owning apps.
The announcement triggered an outcry by internet activists, which forced the online retail giant Flipkart, which had joined hands with Airtel, to pull out of Airtel Zero.
Reliance too courted criticism by joining Facebook’s Free Basics. Free Basics sought to provide users access to select websites ‘free of charge’.
Do the ISPs have a case?
Let’s first look at the key stakeholders in the net neutrality debate: telecom operators, the government of India represented by TRAI, application providers and internet users. Economic reforms initiated in the early 1990s brought about significant changes and one of the beneficiaries was the telecom sector. Basic mobile and telephone services were thrown open to private participation. – New Indian Express